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Testing time for the Constitution at 70

Closet scholars of Japan's top law, rejoice: Here is the quiz you've all been waiting for

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Seventy is wormwood. Seventy is gall.
But it’s better to be seventy. Than not alive at all.

— Phyllis McGinley

Koki is a Japanese term traditionally used to refer to the age of 70. A combination of the characters for “old” and “rare,” it harks back to a time when few lived that long — unlike modern Japan, where people that age are still too young to qualify for certain old-age health insurance programs. .

On May 3, Japan’s Constitution achieved septuagenarian status. Together with dankai no sedai — the baby boomer generation born at the same time — it helped bring new things to a ruined, desperate nation: mass labor movements, employment stability, academic freedom, open debate about politics and other free expression. Some might also say that just like baby boomers, the Constitution has outlived its usefulness, lingering on as a tedious presence that imposes unreasonable burdens on government.

The process leading up to the Constitution’s birth was complex, sort of like the Byzantine life cycle of the eponymous monsters in the “Alien” movie franchise. It started with Americans cramming some core concepts down the throat of a helpless Japanese government then retreating into the background, letting the host think everything was back to normal for a while before bursting into life and wreaking havoc.

The American occupiers, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, arrived in fall of 1945 with the high-minded but vague ideals expressed in the Potsdam Declaration about democratizing Japan and fostering freedom of expression, freedom of religion and other human rights. They had a long list of totalitarian Japanese laws and institutions to be abolished, but the Meiji Constitution of 1889 was not on it. They certainly encouraged constitutional change but initially left the process to the Japanese government.

When it became apparent that the Japanese effort was likely to be inadequate, MacArthur ordered his own people to prepare a draft. This was then presented to a stunned Japanese leadership (seriously, think of the breakfast scene from the original “Alien” movie: “Aaaargggh! Where did this monstrous thing come from?! And it’s in Engliiisshh!”).

After a marathon session of translation and negotiations, a tentative draft was agreed upon and announced by the Japanese government on March 6, 1946, as a home-grown initiative. The involvement of America’s GHQ was a closely guarded secret, though probably obvious given the “sort of seems translated” character of the finished product.

The draft was submitted to what would soon cease to be theImperial” Diet on June 20, 1946. The legislature deliberated upon the substance and meaning of the new charter over the summer and made a number of changes, though nothing the Americans (hiding in the air ducts, ready to swoop down …) did not approve of. The finished product was officially promulgated on Nov. 3, 1946 (the birthday of the late Meiji Emperor) and came into force six months later.

With that brief description out of the way, rather than any further expository treatment of the subject, I thought fellow Japanophiles might enjoy testing their knowledge of the Constitution’s birth with the following quiz.


Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. The views expressed are those of the author alone.